A government taskforce into foreign interference will require Australian universities to comply with government security in addressing concerns of cyber hacking and foreign collaboration. The taskforce will also survey students about freedom of speech on their campuses.
Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan announced the taskforce last week, outlining that half its representation will be drawn from the government and half from university staff.
Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence declined to confirm whether staff members from Sydney University will make up part of the academic representation.
The introduction of the taskforce builds on existing sentiment highlighted by members of government and the mainstream media that considers foreign interference to be heavily injected in Australian universities.
Just last month, Curtin University and the University of Technology announced a review into the development of surveillance technologies on their campuses after a Four Corners investigation identified the universities’ partnerships with CETC, a Chinese military tech company responsible for creating an app used to racially profile Uighur Chinese citizens.
In July of this year, intelligence officials suggested China may have been responsible for a major data breach at the Australian National University that resulted in up to 19 years of personal and academic data being obtained from students and staff.
“We understand that there are community concerns about purported foreign influence on Australia’s university campuses”, Vice-Chancellor Spence told Honi. “We welcome the establishment for a forum of dialogue…to address those concerns,” he said.
It seems little has been released to universities regarding the practical steps that will take place in the coming weeks to implement the taskforce.
“While full details of our engagement with the taskforce and student survey are yet to be determined, the safety and wellbeing of our students remain a top priority,” Spence told Honi.
SRC President Jacky He, elected on a platform of representing Chinese international students last year, told Honi that Chinese international students would align with the four areas to be probed by the taskforce.
Those areas are cyber security, research and intellectual property, foreign collaboration and culture and communication.
He said there was also an increasing “phobia towards Chinese students” and called for increased dialogue between Chinese and local students to foster mutual understanding.
“International students find themselves already short of time having to deal with study and living, and overcome various difficulties in a country that is unfamiliar to them.” “It is indeed absurd and misleading to suggest that Chinese students are here to carry out spying works,” He said.
Second year law student Zhiquan told Honi that he was worried the prevention of foreign intervention had turned into an excuse which risked worsening the attitudes of domestic students towards international students on campus.
Jack*, another international student, told Honi the taskforce unfairly targeted Chinese researchers in Australian universities.
“Just because there is a tension between the two countries right now does not mean their scholars will become spies,” Jack said.
The Government’s increasing concerns over foreign interference follow a recent paper by the conservative think tank Centre of Independent Studies which confirmed that 10% of all students attending an Australian university now hail from Mainland China.
That paper’s author, Associate Professor Salvatore Babones, told Honi that Australian universities “have become addicted to Chinese money.” “By admitting so many students from China and offering so few support services for them, the universities almost ensure that Chinese students will mostly keep to themselves,” said Babones.
In 2017, the University of Sydney generated more than half a billion dollars in revenue from Chinese international student course fees, close to a quarter of its total revenue.
*Names have been changed